Graduate students need meaningful mentor program

This week, Mentoring Week in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences should serve to remind us that good mentoring is critically important to graduate education.

Without meaningful interaction between faculty and students, an advanced degree represents no more than a few years of coursework, a stint as a Teaching Fellow and an often-solitary period spent writing a dissertation. Though these are all important pieces of a graduate program, a student must also learn how to cultivate strong personal and professional relationships with the people who will one day be his or her colleagues; navigate the administrative world of a large university; present research to faculty, deans and committees both in and outside of his or her field; and employ a host of discipline-specific tricks and strategies for coping with the demands of a successful academic career. In short, a graduate student needs to master skills that go beyond the classroom, library, and laboratory — skills that can only be learned through a mentor relationship with someone who has gone through the same process.

So what is good mentoring?

That question is hard to answer because what works in a humanities department might not work in a natural sciences laboratory, and a situation that is ideal for one professor and his or her student might be unacceptable for others. In an often-quoted section of sociologist Morris Zelditch’s article “Mentor Roles” (1990), graduate mentors are defined as: “Advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one’s performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about, and aid in obtaining opportunities; models of identity, of the kind of person one should be [in order] to be an academic.”

Of course, we cannot talk about mentors without also remembering the role that students must play in the equation. Graduate students must be articulate about what they are looking for in a mentor and learn to draw on the knowledge and experience of a variety of people, not just a single advisor. Good mentoring is similar to good teaching: it adapts to the individual needs of student and professor, all with the goal of training academic professionals who will make meaningful contributions to their discipline.

For me, the most important aspect of the mentoring relationship is trust. I think that graduate students are often hesitant to voice questions, doubts, or criticisms about their classes and research — even their career choice — because they worry about appearing unintelligent or uncommitted to faculty and other students. In these moments, good mentors shine: they create an environment in which students can share these thoughts and trust that they will not by judged negatively for it. I think that with all the responsibilities facing both faculty and students, the work demanded of them and the pressure they place on themselves, such trust greatly reduces the stress and enriches the experience of graduate education.

Thanks to the efforts of the Graduate Student Assembly and the support of faculty and administrators, this week has been set aside to call attention to the importance of mentoring in the Graduate School here at Yale.

More than an end in and of itself, though, Mentoring Week marks a beginning. It is a chance for us to remember that, for all the financial and physical resources at Yale, it is the human resources that must set the university apart. Graduate students can deepen their knowledge doing research in any laboratory or library, but it is the close, working relationships with our faculty — our access to some of the world’s finest mentors — that will truly make or break us as leaders in our fields.

Nicholas Goodbody is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He is the publicity chair for the Graduate Student Assembly.

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